Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Grading: Arbitrary Punishment?

At our administrative meeting yesterday, our fearless leader began to dig deeper about how the system of grading really works at our high school, and, ultimately, what its purpose is. It got me thinking about the difference between grading and assessing. Recognizing that we can't do yet without a grading system, how could the one we have work better for our students and our teachers?

It's a no-brainer that in today's public schools, assessment has taken on a different meaning than when I was in high school in the late 80's. If we are to be held accountable, then our students must learn the standards, and if our students are to learn what we want them to learn, then we must assess, assess, and assess in various and different ways, formatively and summatively. And then based on the results, we change our instruction, reteach, remediate, support - whatever we have to do to make sure our students learn.

Conversely, research has shown that grading is "ineffective, time-consuming, and hurtful" to both teachers and students (Zemelman et al. 314). Grading, at best, is superficial, based on an arbitrary, pre-determined number scale that has symbolic meaning only. Well, then, what good are grades? Can't we get rid of them? Hold on. Not anytime soon. Our society isn't ready; grading systems are too entrenched in our culture. And there aren't enough educators out there who want to fight the long battle; there are too many other battles to fight.

So if grades are staying, we have to make sure the process from assessment to final indicator, the grade, is as seamless, fair, timely, and consistent within a content area as possible, for both students and teachers. If the real thought and effort goes into designing and constructing the assessments, which is where you want it, then grading should be rote with consistent rules to follow, and there should be little room for subjectivity.

I never lose sight of this: a grade by itself, an A- for example, tells us very little about the student or the teacher. A look at the student's work, however, should tell the story if the assessments are worthwhile. That's another post.

Work Cited:
Zemelman et al. Best Practice: Today's Standards for Teaching and Learning in America's Schools. Heinemann: Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 2005.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Beliefs are Nothing without Action

After Arne Duncan was appointed our new Secretary of Education, I caught an interview with him on All Things Considered (NPR, February 4, 2009). His mother is still running an inner-city tutoring program that she started in Chicago in 1961. He remarked that she is an incredible person who turns kids' lives around. Along the same lines, he stated that if we " ... believe in them, invest in them, [and] have the highest of expectations ..." our children will turn the world on its head. He got me thinking about the characteristics of adults who make a real difference in the lives of our students.

In Osterman and Kottkamp's 2004 edition of Reflective Practice for Educators, they say it very simply: "The actions that [educators] take, individually and collectively, determine whether children succeed" (7). Further, Osterman and Kottkamp emphasize the importance of cognition, maintaining that our beliefs influence our actions. Unfortunately, they don't say much about what those actions entail. Further, other than our beliefs, what are the factors involved that get us moving? I think that making a difference is a result of serious effort. In other words, it's hard work. 'Thought influences action,' but thought alone can't act. So how does action really play a role, and what does it look like? Even more compelling, what are the characteristics of a teacher who makes a difference?

If teachers are outstanding, which means that all of their students are very successful, I have come to my own conclusion that they must, at the least, have the following characteristics, along with the true belief that every child can and will be successful.
  1. Outstanding teachers must consistently work hard.
  2. They must work long hours for the benefit of perhaps only one student.
  3. They must be organized with their time while maintaining a healthy personal life.
  4. They must be very organized with their material things related to school.
  5. They must be truly altruistic, not wanting recognition or payment.
  6. They must have high self confidence to be able to act without the approval of others, mainly other teachers.
  7. They must be physically and mentally healthy, well-grounded and balanced.

What I'm really getting at is this: teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world if we want to do it right. Believing that our students can succeed is just the tip of the very beginning. Then comes the real work. Serious action with serious intent. And serious hard work.

Although I'm not really sure about this, I'd bet that Arne Duncan's mother has more than just a belief in and high expectations for her students. I'd bet that she is also an incredibly hard worker, organized in more ways than one, genuinely altruistic, confident, healthy, well-grounded, and balanced.

Ok, my next assignment is to come up with the ultimate list of questions to ask prospective teachers during interviews to find out whether or not they have the characterisitics listed above. If anybody has a start on this list, can you kindly forward it to me?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Creativity: Have Teachers Lost It?

I've heard too often that a state's standards and their accompanying standardized assessments have taken creativity out of the classroom. For the student and the teacher. I would argue differently. Think about it. Standards and state assessments are only a small part of what makes up curriculum. Don't forget that included in any good curricula is what is taught, how it is taught, the materials used, pacing guides, and the formative and summative assessments that are created locally. The state doesn't mandate how we get our students where they need to be in relation to the standards. The standards are simply our guidelines for building our local curriculum. This is where the creativity comes in.

Who is to say that we have to remain at the level of the standards written? Let's be creative and up the ante. For example, take the following Virginia Standards of Learning for 10th grade English.

The student will participate in and report on small-group learning activities.
a) Assume responsibility for specific group tasks.
b) Participate in the preparation of an outline or summary of the group activity.
c) Include all group members in oral presentation.
d) Use grammatically correct language, including vocabulary appropriate to the topic, audience, and purpose.

A teacher who believes that she isn't able to tap into her creativity to enrich this standard will simply have her students work in a group with certain meaningless tasks outlined. Each student will write something, and then each group member will present and use correct grammar. This lesson could take 15 minutes and fail to include anything relevant, thought-provoking, challenging, and/or stimulating - all of the things associated with creativity. Now let's look at these standards differently with the intent to embed creativity in the lesson.

First, the teacher has to use her creativity and intuition to decide when she should incorporate these standards in her timeline to optimize learning. She needs to determine how the group activity can be easily connected to the content knowledge and to other English and cross-curricular standards. She must determine what the essential questions are that need to be answered by students during this lesson and what, ultimately, she wants her students to learn that includes the standards. She has to figure out to make the lesson challenging. In other words, does it get students to think differently about something as compared to how they usually think? Is the lesson relevant? Is there a way to use community resources to bring relevancy into the lesson? Can students find a way to connect it to their own lives? Does it stimulate reflective thought? Are students applying their knowledge and skills in a real-world setting? How will she assess? She should provide students a rich way to show their growth. Who will the audience be? Other classrooms? Younger children? Parents? ... whew! This is really hard work.

It's not easy to say what I really mean. Some teachers today, not all, are taking the easy way out because they can. If they teach the standards at the level that they are presented, they can do it without creativity, which means less work and less commitment. And then they can blame the standards movement for the lack of creativity and lackluster classrooms. A rich curriculum that is creative and challenging takes a tremendous amount of work. Fortunately, we don't have to start from square one; the standards are already supplied for us. The creativity lies in how we get our students there.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"I make a #@*% difference! What about you?"

I found this in my school mailbox recently ... a piece written anonymously, photocopied, and shared among those of us who care.

He says the problem with teachers is, "What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?"
He reminds the other dinner guests that it's true what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do: those who can't, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his and resist the temptation to remind the other dinner guests that it's also true what they say about lawyers.

Because we're eating, after all, and this is polite company.

"I mean, you're a teacher, Taylor," he says.
"Be honest. What do you make?"

And I wish he hadn't done that (asked me to be honest) because, you see, I have a policy about honesty and ass-kicking: if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.

You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups. No, you may not ask a question. Why won't I let you get a drink of water? Because you're not thirsty, you're bored, that's why.

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
I hope I haven't called at a bad time, I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today. Billy said, "Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don't you?"
And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are and what they can be.

You want to know what I make?

I make kids wonder.
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write, write, write.
And then I make them read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful over and over and over again until they will never misspell either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math.
And hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you got this (brains) then you follow this (heart) and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, you give them this (the finger).

Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
I make a goddamn difference! What about you?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What Should Students Learn?

Increasingly, schools are becoming places where students are expected to learn not only the core academics, but life skills, too. Schools are responsible for teaching morals, ethics, tolerance, anger management, cooking skills, child-rearing skills, driving skills, relationship skills, sex education, and much more. With the issue of accountability that accompanies high-stakes testing, teachers and administrators are challenged to find the actual time to accomplish it all, and all the while, the expectations keep rising. Can we do it? It is possible, but school leaders must find a way to educate society in regard to what public education is all about today, and in turn, society has to put its money where its mouth is.

If schools are expected to be real places for real learning, then we have to provide everything that our students and teachers need to get them where we want them to be. The educational role of schools should be focused on teaching students in the core subjects along with teaching them essential life skills. School leaders must realize that with the advent of the 21st century and the fact that many families have both parents in the work force, a school is often the only place where our children learn what they need to know to be productive citizens. The parents and the community at large also have to be willing to fully support schools to create places where learning takes place and success occurs on a regular basis. Alliances must be built.

Parents rely heavily upon schools, and it’s not always because they feel that schools can be trusted to teach their children everything; it’s because parents don’t have the time to do it. They are often both working, and with the divorce rate topping fifty percent in the United States, single parents are running households while holding full-time jobs. If parents aren’t at home, they can’t teach their children. Teaching it all becomes the school’s job. Each decade brings new demands on schools to meet the needs of a changing society and an expanding world economy. The role of education must constantly change depending on the needs of the society it serves.

School leaders, including teacher leaders and administrators, are integral to the growth of their teachers and their students. Their roles revolve around meeting the needs of teachers to increase student learning. If they don’t provide beneficial direct assistance, professional development, group development, curriculum development, and the means for teachers to delve into action research for student improvement, then they have failed (Glickman, Gordon, & Ross-Gordon, 2006). It is their responsibility to their respective schools to build relationships, assess need with purpose, and act (Donaldson, 2006).

What role, then, do parents play in education? The same role that community plays: they must give and do what they can, and then support, support, support. Unfortunately, many schools don’t realize that their parents aren’t as supportive as they could be because the school has failed to inform the community of its purpose. Schools must make every effort to effectively communicate with parents to encourage their involvement at every level of their children’s learning. In other words, it is the school’s responsibility to create interaction with the parents and the community. Positive relationships can be created through newsletters, school Web site information, teacher Web sites with continued homework updates, informational and Open House gatherings for parents, parent/teacher conferences, invitational school involvement, community/business members paired with teachers, parent phone calls and much more.

Particularly, business leaders in the community should be involved in the school system, but, again, it is the school’s responsibility to build these alliances. Local business owners should be encouraged to interact with school children to share their experiences and to build an interest in thinking about careers early. Local community colleges and universities can build alliances with teachers to create college opportunities for students. With some creative thinking, students can benefit from various community and business members by seeing the connection between learning and “real” life.

As an educational leader, I see the 'big picture.' I have the ability to see or make connections. I have been told that I have 'vision.' For me, as a learner, I need to be given the opportunity to find and understand the connections I know that are inherent in every learning opportunity. This was always integral to my teaching; my students needed to see the connections. I disagree with the sentiment, “Things happen for a reason.” Instead, I propose that reason can be found in everything that happens. We have to be able to find the reason. I used this ability recently when interviewing an assistant high school principal who stated that his job is ninety percent discipline and ten percent building maintenance. He expressed his regret at never having (or making) the opportunity to impact instruction more by observing teachers and classrooms. I stated that if he were to observe classrooms and interact with teachers more, he might discover those who need help with behavior management. This might lead to fewer discipline issues. Being purposeful about his presence in classrooms would surely impact student learning. He said, “I never thought of it that way.” I believe we need more 'big vision' thinkers in today’s schools.

How can we develop 'big vision' thinkers among our teachers and educational leaders? One word. Collaboration. I am a collaborator; therefore, I choose to work with people who want to work together to solve problems, think up new ideas, and take risks. I am also a believer in children and in the power of education. I love changing the lives of children for the better, and I must work with individuals who love the same. I am in my perfect work situation when my co-workers have a vision that entails changing the world through our daily work. Most importantly, we all must believe that it is possible.

Donaldson, Gordon A., Jr. (2006). Cultivating Leadership in Schools: Connecting People, Purpose, & Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Glickman, Carl D., Gordon, Stephen P., & Ross-Gordon, Jovita M. (2006). SuperVision and Instructional Leadership: A Developmental Approach. New Jersey: Allyn & Bacon.

Maxwell, John C. (1991). The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow. Nashville: Maxwell Motivation, Inc.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Characteristics of an Effective Principal

A few years back when I was still teaching English, I served on a principal interview committee. The day before we began the interviews, I asked my students to list the characteristics that make a good principal. I still have the list. In fact, I keep it tacked to my bulletin board at work.
  • Good attitude
  • Nice
  • Non-discriminatory
  • Real
  • Sense of humor/personality
  • Flexible
  • Honest/fair
  • Well mannered
  • Someone who isn't dumb
  • Involved
  • Belief in students and know their potential
  • Remember what it's like to be a teenager
  • Support students in the extracurricular things
  • Non-judgmental
  • Understanding
  • Young and fun
I was deeply touched when one of my students turned to me and said, "You know Ms. Crandall, you could be a principal. You have all these characteristics." From that moment on, I have sought to embody what my students think makes a good principal. I'm not sure I can always be young, but I am certainly young at heart . . . and I'm trying my best to keep from being dumb.

Who Are Our Veteran Teachers?

At the start of the school year, I purposely front-load all the novice teachers for observations. They're new, and new teachers need immediate support and feedback in regard to teaching, managing student behavior, setting up classroom routines, and planning lessons. Then I work my way through the faculty to finally get to our veteran teachers at the end of the year. I do this because I like to end my year on a positive note. Let me explain.

Some of our veteran teachers have been with us for over thirty years. In my meetings with them of late, I press them to tell me why they continue to do what they do. I've gotten some beautiful answers.

They tell me that high school students make them laugh every day, and this keeps them young. They tell me that they love to make students laugh. They think this makes young people more likely to come to school. They tell me that they are passionate about their subject, and this is really important or else students won't see the need to learn what these teachers want them to learn. They tell me that they love these students as individuals and pray every day that each of them will succeed. They tell me that having students return after they've graduated to stop by to see them is one of the greatest feelings. They tell me that they get up in the morning and feel so lucky that they get to go to school and teach. I'm not making any of this up. It's all real and true.

All, not some, but all of these veteran teachers are teaching outside core areas. In other words, they don't teach math, English, social studies, or science. Many of them taught in the core areas years ago, but now? They're teaching life skills and family planning, drafting, physical education, culinary arts, art, business, finance, keyboarding, work skills, Spanish, French, Latin, and I could go on. Not one of our core area teachers talks the same language. Here's what I hear from them throughout the year.

They tell me that they're tired; there's little time to laugh. They tell me that when students are laughing in the classroom, most likely they're off task. They tell me that students don't come to class, and this keeps teachers angry because, well, how can teachers teach if the students aren't there? They tell me that they're sick of the standardized tests, and then they tell me that they can't teach what they want; they've lost their creativity. They tell me that parents aren't being held accountable and that they really wish students who aren't serious about learning quit and get their GED. And the students who stay? The teachers tell me that they pray they will pass their SOL's. They tell me that they're always surprised when a student who graduated comes back to see them. They tell me that when they get up in the morning, they feel like crying because they know that it's just one more day closer to the SOL test, and they're behind. I'm not making any of this up. It's all real and true.

It's not difficult to understand why certain teachers stay in the field of public education and why other teachers crash, burn, and die. In other words, the correlation between why teachers continue to teach and what they teach is obvious. Our teachers who are invested with teaching what many understand to be the basics, the most important subjects, are unhappy, stressed, disgruntled, and genuinely tired. They feel like they have lost their right to be creative in the classroom, they are assigned students who don't want to be there, and they really believe that students don't see the need for the basics. They feel like they are being held accountable for something that they can't necessarily control. They feel lost in an out-of-control system.

This is the toughest part of my job . . . working with these teachers. What can I offer them? A fresh perspective on a very old lesson? A creative way to reach their students? A shoulder to cry on? I guess each little bit helps. Our core area standardized test scores are progressively going up, but I'm not seeing the change in our teachers that I'd like to see. I'm worried. I'm having a tough time visualizing where all this is going. NCLB. AYP. Are we meeting our students' needs and the needs of our country? What about our teachers' needs? Where and how do these all converge?

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to meet with our agriculture teacher. He's been with us for thirty-two years. I can't wait. I'll end the day with a positive teacher, one who can't keep from smiling because he loves what he does, day in and day out.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Critical Thinking: It's Critical

Today I met with a math teacher to discuss my observation of his class. I was impressed to see the level of critical thinking that infused his lesson during my observation, and I told him so. We then had a discussion about his concern that students aren't really able to synthesize what they've learned across a content area or across disciplines. I agreed that I had come to the same conclusion. This led me to ask the questions: What in our thinking helps us make leaps from content that we're learning now to content that we learned earlier, and how do we make connections to the bigger picture, the picture that includes disciplines other than the one we are studying? Are there critical thinking skills that can be used in any class, any time to help us make these connections? If so, what are they, and how do we teach them?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Engaged? On Task? What Matters.

Two and a half years ago while sitting in a graduate level education course, I found myself looking at a tally sheet for keeping track of whether or not each student in a classroom setting is 'on task.' An interesting way of doing an observation. I was to sit in the classroom with a view of all students and 'sweep' the room. I could make as many 'sweeps' as I wanted but the more, the better. More data. The 'sweep' entailed focusing on each student for so many seconds and marking 'yes' or 'no' on the tally sheet. 'Yes' for 'on task.' 'No' for 'off task.' This was my clinical observation class at George Mason, one of the many administrative classes that I was required to take if I wanted to be endorsed as an education administrator. No wonder it was called 'clinical observation.' Something was bothering me about this 'on task' business. The human element wasn't there. Something was missing. What if all students were 'on task' one hundred percent of the time? Did this make for an effective learning experience?

Zoom forward to the present. After performing close to two hundred observations of teachers and their students over the past two years, I can safely say that to be 'on task' means absolutely nothing if the task that a student is asked to do is meaningless, rote, and/or irrelevant. It didn't take me long to figure out that what I really want to know when observing a teacher's classroom is whether or not her students are engaged. Ahhh ... 'engaged,' now there's a warm, fuzzy, 'human' word. Unfortunately, it's not always easy trying to determine the 'engaged' student in the classroom as opposed to the 'disengaged' student, or 'unengaged' student. I had to define 'engagement' for myself. And what that looks like in any classroom, whether it's Ms. Doe's U.S. history class where lecturing is the prime teaching mode or Mr. Brown's wood class where students never leave the saws. What does it mean to be 'engaged' and what does it look like?

I was observing a class recently where students were asked to complete a cross-word puzzle with their vocabulary words. This is a task asked of them every week on the same day. Instead of working on their puzzle, two students were discussing the reading that was for homework the night before. They had both done the reading and while discussing it found that they didn't understand the same part of the story. Together, they were trying to find meaning. Needless to say, I was not doing a 'sweep.' Instead, because I had read the story and taught it a few years back, I got involved in the students' conversation. Later, when I met with the teacher to discuss the observation and to offer feedback, she became apologetic about the two students who were obviously 'off task' when I "caught them."

It was easy for me to tell the teacher that her engaged students were the two discussing the homework from the previous night, but it wasn't easy for her to agree. She argued that all the other students were diligently working quietly on what it was that she wanted them to do. They were 'on task.' But I insisted, "Even if the use of the puzzle is for review, does it work? Does it get them thinking about what you want them to learn?" I reminded her that far too often I've heard too many students say, "I love cross-word puzzles! I don't have to think!"

Students are engaged when they are making meaning in a relevant context, one that is as close to a real-world experience as possible. The task, the skill, and the content required must be meaningful. And students must be able to understand how these things have meaning beyond themselves. They should know the greater purpose, and they should be able to connect to it. They should be able to tell you what the greater purpose is.

We have to be careful what we ask our students to do, especially when we ask them to do the same thing over and over again. Don't get me wrong. I think there's a place for cross-word puzzles, but students who work diligently on a cross-word puzzle every week are most likely involved in what has become a meaningless activity. What's the purpose?

As the teacher and I came to the close of the post-observation meeting, we finally agreed on some essentials. We came up with a list of meaningful ways to teach vocabulary and ways to review that didn't become monotonous. We discussed how to tap into what students are thinking about when they walk into the classroom without losing much time. And we discussed how important it is to listen to students. To actively get involved and move about the room listening for meaningful conversations like the one I heard. This is what we're looking for as educators.

If there's nothing else I've learned as an observer, it's to be an active one. Forget sitting in a corner of a classroom passively watching whatever unfolds before my eyes and tallying marks on a tally sheet. In order for me to know whether or not students are engaged, I get down on my knees next to their desks or tables and I ask. I get involved. I make them explain to me what they are working on and why. I ask them how what they are learning is tied to the bigger picture. If they can't tell me, I take note and bring it up with the teacher later. Teacher by teacher. Student by student. I love my job.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Where We Have Failed

As typical of the media, they tend to focus on the negative when it comes to our public schools. They are very quick to tell us that we are failing at something or another. So, as an educator I'm often thinking about failure. Who are we failing? How is this happening? At some point during the presidential campaign last year, it became very clear to me what we're doing wrong. Ironically, it revolves around the media.

Now, more than ever, we need as individuals and as a society to be able to analyze, or synthesize, or take apart and put together again, the daily content, messages, advertisements, and general informatioin that bombards us at a sickening rate. The statistics of how much information we are almost forced to acknowledge daily is astonishing. So, it's no wonder that people shut down and turn off and simply allow someone else to explain, analyze, and or evaluate all this information. This is scary.

While teaching English within the last decade, I had many interesting arguments with students about how the media impact our society. My students always tended to blame the media for our negative attributes. It's easier to take this stance; this removes the individual from the problem, releases him from blame. I always got pretty heated in these debates. It was difficult not to. Because, I knew, if students believed that our violence and our degraded morals and virtues as a society stemmed from aggressively violent video games and blatant sex on MTV and in the movies, they would never see their role in the bigger picture. They hated to hear that the media does what it does because we buy it. If we don't want it, the media doesn't produce it. It's a simple economic principle. If the demand is there, produce.

Now? I'm really not so sure that I can make that argument anymore. I'm beginning to think that our media may actually be controlling our society more than we'd like to think ... or not think. As I was drawn deeply into the presidential campaign over the course of the past year, I noticed that whatever spin the media decided to give to whatever story they decided to report, the 'news' was voraciously devoured by rabid viewers. And it was very clear that there was little thinking going on in regard to at least fifty percent of the population, and this huge group of people believed everything they read or heard. I had personal experience with this.

There were many students I spoke with last year who just simply had incorrect information about our presidential candidates or about the campaign itself. I would locate valid sources, and we'd read or listen together, and then I'd ask them to reevaluate their original statement based now on the facts. They didn't like doing this, but it worked to show them where they had stopped thinking on their own and where in their thinking they had allowed someone else to take over. I never let the cat out of the bag in regard to who I was planning to vote for; my focus was simply making sure that they got the correct information, in the correct context, and evaluated it on their own. This worked for our students, but I couldn't necessarily go through the same process with adults I ran across who were having the same problem with their thinking.

Which brings me back to the immediacy of the problem: If our public schools intend to churn out people who can think, who want to think, who can tackle jobs that haven't even been created yet, who can work productively in a globalized society, and who can keep America on top, then we'd better look long and hard at what we're not doing. We fail at teaching our students how to analyze what they see and hear around them. Worse yet, they can evaluate very little on their own. When our adults fail to think, and I think to some degree it's a choice that many of them make, then we can rightfully blame ourselves and our public school system for failing to do what, I think, is our primary job: teach our students to think for themselves, to think deeply, and to base their decisions on something other than how they feel.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Response to "The Misplaced Math Student"

This is my response to an article by Dr. Tom Loveless, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy entitled "The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra" published in September 2008.


Dr. Loveless,
I've read your article regarding misplaced math students lost in eighth grade algebra, and it's difficult to disagree with your citing of the research and data and your conclusions. However, I fail to see how schools, educators, and/or policy-makers can really benefit without real solution/s to a real problem.

Instead of telling us what we already know, "[students] should be taught whole number and fraction arithmetic so that they can then move on to successfully learn advanced mathematics," give us clear methods, strategies, approaches to use to help us, not to identify (we know how to do that), but support these children in elementary school before they get to the tougher maths and simultaneously support them while they are enrolled in Algebra I in eighth grade.

Your only real feasible solution is to require students to attend summer school. Unfortunately, the students you have identified (from poor, minority families who can offer little support to their children) are unlikely to attend summer school, required or not, and the schools that they attend (large, high-poverty, urban public schools) are unlikely to have the finances to offer summer school.

According to Richard DuFour , et al. (Whatever It Takes... 2004), support must be built into the school day in order to reach the students you've identified. This is where we have the most difficult problem ... finding time during the day to reach these students before it's too late. Offer us creative ways to play with and manage time in order to accomplish supporting our students during school hours. This is the only way we're going to reach those 120,000 students to which you refer. I believe that it can be done.

Here at my high school, with a student enrollment of app. 1,600, we see the same type of students struggling in Algebra I and Geometry who are consistently failing our state standardized exams. We have finally realized that our students will never learn what we want them to learn if we don't support them during the day. We're going to a "one lunch" period next year - we currently run 4 lunches - to work in remediation and enrichment during the day. I'm very excited and will be working with a select team of teachers next semester to finalize the details to make sure it has a good start. Wish us luck.

I enjoy reading your articles. I hope to see one related to the above suggestions in the near future. Thank you for your time.

Snow Day in Virginia

Ok, today's an educator's dream come true ... a snow day. Don't laugh! I know it's not much snow, but we take what we can get here in Virginia. I lived for thirteen years in Boston, and as far as I can remember school was never closed because of the weather. So, this is a joke, and I know it, but ... I need a break. I'm going to spend the day with my son drinking hot cocoa, letting the dogs out to pee occasionally, and avoiding as much Sponge Bob as I can. Ahh...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

YouTube and Blogs: Where are they in the classroom?

On our drive home together after hearing Alan November speak at a conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, my colleague said, "Those English teachers need to start using their digital projectors. I'm going in to their next department meeting and tell them that they have to use PowerPoints. That's a start!" It's not a start. If I sit in on one more teacher observation watching students' eyes glaze over as the teacher clicks from one slide to the next, I'm going to cry. That's a whole problem in and of itself. No, it's not about what the teacher uses in the classroom; it's about students and how they're using technology tools to help them question, understand, research, and create meaning of the content that's on the Internet.

I hope Alan November, an international leader in education technology, and Sara Kajder, a professor of English Education at Virginia Tech, both keep talking until their faces turn blue. They moved me to act. I can only hope that they impacted others in the same way. When I left those conference sessions, I knew that I was going back to my school and infuse our curriculum with technology. Easier said than done.

I got up very early this Sunday morning to write, well, because I couldn't sleep; I was thinking about technology. Since, ironically, I've been unable to connect to Virginia's Department of Education to look more closely at their technology standards, I'm flying by the seat of my pants. I think that Virginia's technology standards focus more on students simply learning how to use the computer and to search the Internet. I know that by 5th grade Virginia students are supposed to know how to turn the computer on, computer jargon, and how to search the Internet. The standards don't change much by the 8th and 12th grades. Further, these standards are separate from the other disciplines. In other words, the technology standards aren't embedded within the standards for science, math, English, or social studies. This is left up to the school districts or the teachers themselves. Big mistake.

Couple this with the fact that almost all of our school districts refuse students access to much of the Internet. Oh, and this includes teachers, too. I'm not sure about you, but here's the message I get from all of this. The teaching and learning of the use of technology is an afterthought, and we're better off just not allowing students and teachers to have access to YouTube and Facebook ... you know, it's just better that way. (If you could see my face right now, you'd see a 'Rachel Maddow expression' going on.)

I discovered last week that my 10-year-old son and his friend from next door have been making "videos." I've yet to have the opportunity to really look at these "videos," but I'm imagining that they are similar to the cool "Learn how to be Ninja" movies on YouTube that they both watch together almost on a daily basis. They're making these "videos" to upload to YouTube. This was their intention from the beginning. I asked my son when did he and his friend think it was time to get their parents involved in this process. He hadn't really thought about it. Well, I involved the other mother last night when she called for me to send her son home. I said, "Hey, did you know that our sons have been working diligently on movies to upload to YouTube?" She practically screamed into the phone, "What? YouTube? They absolutely are not uploading anything to YouTube!" I said, "Well, wait a minute. Let's take a look at the movies together and talk about it. Maybe we can show them how to do it and make sure it's safe and all." I was surprised at her response. "Well, ok, ... I guess so. I guess we should talk about it a little more."

I know my son was probably the instigator in all this because I've worked to empower him when it comes to the Internet; no one else will. Just a week ago or so we sat down in front of my laptop and learned how to use Movie Maker together. He proceeded to make a cool movie of his little plastic transformer creatures beating the hell out of each other (boy stuff), and I loved it. We tried to upload it to YouTube, but we couldn't get it to work. We're still working out the kinks. Now it's my job to work on the mother next door.

This is what it takes. An open mind to what's available out there in cyberspace. Access to it. And teachers who know how to use it in relation to their curriculum. Then it takes time for students to "play" with the tools at their fingertips. To ask the right questions. To understand what they are seeing and hearing. To research productively. And to then create meaning from all that text and content out there floating around. If we educators fail to make sure that this happens, Alan November reminds us, we have failed our children miserably. We are living in a globalized society now, and it doesn't help that we don't even know the jobs that our children will be engaged in because the jobs haven't been created yet. But I can tell you that learning to create meaning from all the global content out there has to be key to the success of our children's future. If nothing I said makes sense, then this video from YouTube will, "A Vision of Students Today." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How do we teach our students to give back to the world?

I keep waking in the middle of the night thinking about education. It could be that I'm beginning to experience pre-menopausal symptoms of being unable to sleep a full night, or it could be that I drink enough wine every night to affect my sleep patterns. Or it could just be that my brain is so fired up about what I do that I have to get it out some way ... so here goes.

Once, not too long ago, the headmaster of a local private school K-8 offered me the position of Language Arts teacher. I was currently teaching English in a local public high school with a salary $10,000 more than the private school could offer me. I didn't accept the position, but he wasn't going to give up. When I answered the phone a few days later, he was on the line to try and talk me into it. After a short conversation, he said, "I know that accepting this position would be a significant drop in your salary, but, think about it, you wouldn't have to teach 'those kids.'" My astonishment quickly turned to anger. I replied, "Sir, I want to teach where I'm needed. I'm needed in public schools, and that's where I'm staying." That was a turning point. For me, it was public education or bust.

It hit me in the gut when it came to my own son. Was he going to a public school? There were so many excellent private schools nearby that choosing that route would be easy, but my husband and I made the decision, after two pre-school years in a local Montessori school, to enroll him in our local public kindergarten. Our reasoning? Diversity.

This was our train of thought. If we send Max to a private school with students who are generally white and from a middle to upper class economic status, then how will he learn to interact with the people from all walks of life, those who make up the rest of our diverse society? We kept returning to this question.

I grew up attending our local public school, and I turned out ok. My husband grew up attending a school that his parents had a hand in starting, but then enrolled in public school in 4th grade. He turned out ok. More than turning out ok, we churned up our good memories of school to discover that they revolved around all the interesting people we connected to who were very different from us but somehow influenced who we are today. Our relationships with them also taught us tolerance and formed in us the need to connect to the world by giving back.

I thought my educational mantra was special. It was one that I began to articulate when I was in my early twenties. Create students who, when they become adults, are productive citizens, who give back to society to create a circle of connectivity, and who continue to learn for themselves and for the next generation. Now in my early 40's after ten years of teaching, I realize that this is the primary vision, mission, and/or goal of all our schools. Now I ask myself how exactly do we create a citizen who is productive and willing to give back to society? It comes back to diversity.

Here's the connection. Imagine a high school English class ... better yet, imagine an American Studies class that focuses on the connection between our country's history and its literature. Now imagine the students sitting in rows before the teacher. You have blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, poor kids, kids with disabilities, rich kids .... you get the picture. Now imagine the discussions that you're going to hear in this classroom. (The assumption is that we have an excellent teacher who knows the value of pushing students to talk about what matters to them in the context of a rigorous set of relevant questions.) Students in the classroom will learn not only that we are all connected, they will learn why and how we are connected. This will serve them well later, and this is what I believe is the key to creating people who see the need to give back; if you know that you are connected to everyone else, and you know how and why, you will be more likely to give back because in the end, it affects us all.